EU leaders on Friday warned President Xi Jinping not to undermine their sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin, delivering a thinly veiled threat that European companies could pull back from business with China if Beijing sided too closely with Moscow.
In an almost-one-hour conversation at a summit with Xi — described by an EU diplomat as “difficult” — Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, presidents of the European Commission and European Council, showed no signs of having bridged the massive gulf between Beijing and Brussels on the war in Ukraine. In a stark sign that the parties were at cross purposes, von der Leyen told a news conference the two sides simply had “opposing views.”
China is casting itself as a firm friend to Russia, is blaming NATO for provoking the war, and is — according to EU officials — considering sending military support to Putin’s troops in Ukraine. Just weeks before the war broke out, Putin clinched a “no-limits” partnership declaration with Xi.
Like U.S. President Joe Biden, von der Leyen and Michel decided to play the commercial card. While China wants to court Russia as an authoritarian partner that can help act as a counterweight to NATO, Beijing is also keen to keep unfettered access to rich western markets.
“We expect China, if not supporting the sanctions, at least to do everything not to interfere in any kind,” von der Leyen said. “No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war. Moreover, it would lead to a major reputational damage for China here in Europe — the reputational risks are also the driving forces in the exodus of international companies from Russia.”
The German president of the European Commission added that the European business sector was “watching very closely the events and evaluating how countries are positioning themselves. This is a question of trust, of reliability, and of course of decisions on long-term investments. Let me remind you that every day China and the European Union trade almost €2 billion worth of goods and services, and in comparison trade between China and Russia is only some €300 million per day.”
Von der Leyen and Michel repeatedly sidestepped questions on whether the Chinese leaders gave them any assurances over whether Beijing would come to Russia’s aid. They also wouldn’t say whether there would be sanctions against China if it did so.
Michel said the EU duo “explained to the Chinese authorities it is important to put pressure on the Kremlin; it’s also important to encourage the Kremlin to negotiate and to be sincere in those talks. We have had this occasion to use all possible arguments … We hope that those arguments have been heard by the Chinese authorities.”
In another intervention intended to promote more effective diplomacy, EU officials say Michel invited Xi to hold a direct conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but there was no immediate sign that Xi would accept.
Beijing’s assessment of the EU summit struck an entirely different note. Seeking to counter strong transatlantic unity on confronting Russia, Xi made sure to encourage Europe to develop its own “autonomous” China policy.
Xi also slipped back into China’s traditional anti-NATO messaging in his assessment of the war’s origins.
“The Ukraine crisis originates from the long-standing security conflicts in Europe,” he told the two EU leaders, according to Chinese state media. “The fundamental solution is to take care of the reasonable security concerns of all sides. Today’s era does not call for the Cold War mentality to construct the global and regional security framework.”
While von der Leyen stressed that the Ukraine war was an international, not European, crisis, Xi begged to differ.
“The Ukraine crisis has to be handled properly … and cannot bind the whole world onto the issue, let alone making citizens of all countries pay a heavy price because of it,” Xi said. “If the situation worsens, it might take years, a decade, or decades to resume [to normality] afterward.”
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